The New York City teacher behind James Gandolfini’s Tony Soprano

The New York City teacher behind James Gandolfini’s Tony Soprano

“The Sopranos” premiered 20 years ago.

James Gandolfini and New York acting coach Susan Aston worked together on the set of "The Sopranos." 
James Gandolfini and New York acting coach Susan Aston worked together on the set of "The Sopranos."  Photo Credit: Charles Eckert

Tony Soprano was one part fiction and two parts James Gandolfini and David Chase. But the on-screen portrayal of the infamous “Sopranos” mob boss came to life thanks to another key player, and we’re not talking “Vinny Ocean” Palermo.

On set during just about every one of Gandolfini’s scenes was acting and dialogue coach Susan Aston, whom the TV mobster heavily credited for his six-season performance.

"Susan is as much a part of all this ‘Soprano’ thing as me. It’s 50/50,” Gandolfini said during his 2004 appearance on the former James Lipton Bravo series, “Inside the Actors Studio.” “She’s given me great insight into things I never would have thought about.”

Aston, now the director of Acting Actors Studio Drama School MFA at Pace University, proudly displays the late actor’s quote on her personal website, 20 years after the series’ 1999 premiere.

James Gandolfini and his acting coach Susan Aston were friends for nearly 25 years. 
James Gandolfini and his acting coach Susan Aston were friends for nearly 25 years.  Photo Credit: Courtesy of Susan Aston

When Gandolfini accepted the career-marking role in “The Sopranos,” his longtime friend Aston did, too. From day one of filming — on location in New Jersey and on sound stages inside Queen’s Silvercup Studios — Aston was by Gandolfini’s side, helping to ensure Chase’s vision for the character came to life.

“We worked together on every episode for years,” she says. “We started out as actors together in the late ’80s and did a lot of two-character plays together in basements all over the East and West villages and then we were on Broadway together in ‘Streetcar.’ “

She vividly recalls Gandolfini calling to ask if she’d be willing to come aboard the set crew. “We worked a lot alike,” she says. “We kind of spoke the same language.”

Gandolfini was at first timid about his desire to have a personal acting coach for the role, and it wasn’t until the series’ second season that he allowed her to provide real-time feedback in front of the rest of the cast, Aston recalls.

Aston’s backstage magic came in the form of script review sessions, some lasting up to five hours, each morning or evening on shoot days.

James Gandolfini and Susan Aston on the last day filming "The Sopranos" in 2007.
James Gandolfini and Susan Aston on the last day filming "The Sopranos" in 2007. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Susan Aston

What was she looking for? Aston says she mainly aimed to find spots within the mob drama where Gandolfini could personalize the character.

“With James in particular, I think what people were always drawn to was that he could be, physically, a very imposing man, but he also had a really big tender heart. I think that’s what the writers really pulled from about James himself, ways to include his own vulnerability in the writing,” she explains.

The two would rehearse scenes together in his apartment, or set camper — after she dissected his scripts and provided notes and direction — looking for those scenes that’d allow softer emotion.  

“There was so much brutality in the show; without that, it would have just been another mob show. But a mobster in therapy, that was all David Chase,” she says.

Playing a crucial part in Gandolfini’s most famous role, the acting coach has spoken publicly about her relationship with him in Dan Bischoff’s "James Gandolfini: The Real Life of the Man Who Made Tony Soprano."

Most notably, Aston spoke out about her close-knit relationship with Gandolfini at his funeral services in 2013.

“A lot has been said about James’ work. He was a master. As his friend and creative collaborator for over 25 years, I can attest to that. He worked hard. He was disciplined. He studied his roles, and he did his homework with his scripts,” she said. “He used his brilliant mind to ask the questions that would prepare his heart for each scene.”

Meghan Giannotta